All around Pete Carroll, heads were down almost as much as spirits.
The Seahawks season had just ended Saturday night within the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs deep in the heart of Texas.
Carroll then got to the heart of what he wanted his players to take out of their defying run to the postseason.
“You don’t ever lose if you get better,” the 67-year-old coach told them. “You always have a chance to get back on course and get going again and there’s always something positive you keep building on.”
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In his postgame press conference a few minutes later Carroll was asked for the biggest positive to come out of the 10-7 season and Seattle’s return to the playoffs. All this came after he, the defense and the offense’s philosophy before the season.
“Without question, it’s this connection that our guys have and their willingness to keep going the extra step, the extra mile, whatever it takes,” Carroll said. “It really comes down to these guys fighting to be great teammates. They care so much. ...
“Nobody thought we were going to be here, so we’re miles ahead of where expectations were. This doesn’t mean anything to me because that’s not my expectations; it was everybody else’s. But it still happened and it was important that it did, and we finished really well on the season.
“Six (playoff appearances) out of the last seven, it was a big deal. It wasn’t quite enough to get us at home in the playoffs, which we know is so valuable.”
Receiver Tyler Lockett, who had a breakout season with 10 touchdown catches, said he saw a brotherhood develop that was this team’s most impressive trait.
“I think we have an amazing team. Aside from football, everything that we built was amazing: the foundation, the brotherhood, the love that we have for one another,” Lockett said. “These are going to be relationships that will last a lifetime, not just a season or two and not for just through our careers…
“We’ve gotten so much closer as a group, as a unit helping each other throughout the problems of life that people don’t understand that goes on behind closed doors. The brotherhood that we built is so amazing. It’s kind of hard to describe. It’s kind of hard to talk about it. This is one of the closest groups I’ve ever been a part of.”
Thing is, they aren’t all staying together.
The Seahawks have just 34 players under contract for 2019. That’s second-fewest in the league, four fewer than the woeful New York Jets. A full, in-season roster has 53 players.
Carroll and Seattle general manager John Schneider have 14 players with expiring contracts due to become unrestricted free agents when the market and league year for 2019 open March 13. The most prominent of those are Earl Thomas, Frank Clark and K.J. Wright.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Carroll said this week.
“Let me say this: This time of year, we always cite that it’s a really difficult time. There’s a lot of stuff that has to take place, there’s a lot of business. John has a master plan of carrying this thing out. He’s got a schedule and calendar of all kinds of stuff that he’s working. Already, we’re well into it. There’s a strategy and a plan to carry this out and our guys know. We’ve communicated with everybody.”
Thomas has been gone from the team, probably forever, since. He’s heading to unrestricted free agency.
Clark’s rookie contract ended with Saturday’s loss. He had another sack at Dallas and finished with a career-best 15 sacks in 17 games. He stands to get a mammoth raise from the $940,000 he earned this season, perhaps up to $18 million per year in this passer-and-sack-the-passer league.
Clark is still only 25, likely on the cusp of his prime. He told The News Tribune late Saturdaywhen minicamps begin in May.
“I think they are going to take care of it,” he said.
Carroll said the team is working on keeping Clark, and that he’s not going anywhere.
Asked this week what his confidence was Clark will be on the team in 2019, Carroll said: “I’m counting on it. Counting on it.”
Wright is 29. He played in only six of the 17 games this season following knee surgery in August. He sees what the Seahawks have done—and not done—for Thomas and wonders what’s next for him.
What indications have the Seahawks given him they might re-sign him?
“Nothing,” the 2017 Pro Bowl outside linebacker said.
“I want to be here. I’d love to be here. I love playing with this team, with (defensive coordinator Ken) Norton, with Bobby (Wagner, his All-Pro linebacking partner),” he said. “And I believe it would be in the team’s best interests if I stay here.
“I’m heading to free agency. We’ll see how that goes.”
Carroll said Monday: “We’d love to have K.J. back with us. That’s one of the many issues.”
Kicker Sebastian Janikowski is another unrestricted free agent. The 40-year-old just finished his 19th season by severely injuring his hamstring trying to kick a 57-yard field goal at the end of the first half Saturday. Carroll said he’s not sure if Janikowski needs surgery.
Whether he does or not he seems unlikely to return. So the Seahawks will likely be shopping for a third kicker in three seasons since they let Steven Hauschka go to Buffalo in free agency following the 2016 season.
Forty percent of the starting offensive line is headed to unrestricted free agency, unless they team re-signs it first. Both right guard D.J. Fluker and left guard J.R. Sweezy, who played through a broken bone in his foot Saturday night, said they want the Seahawks to re-sign them.
“We’d love to keep those guys with us,” Carroll said. “We’d love to do that.”
Others due to be unrestricted free agents include running back Mike Davis, nickel defensive back Justin Coleman, often-injured defensive end Dion Jordan, defensive tackle Shamar Stephen and special-teams captain Neiko Thorpe.
Seattle has nine players who can become restricted free agents. The team has the right of first refusal to any offer each such player might receive elsewhere, if he doesn’t sign back with the Seahawks first. Those nine are: running back J.D. McKissic, who caught a TD pass on fourth down late in the playoff loss, cornerback Akeem King, fullback Tre Madden, cornerback Kalan Reed, center Joey Hunt, tackle George Fant, defensive end Branden Jackson, defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson and defensive end Ricky Ali’ifua.
The Seahawks also have six, younger players they can retain and likely will as exclusive-rights free agency. They are: reserve middle linebacker Austin Calitro, who started five games, wide receiver Malik Turner, long snapper Tyler Ott, offensive tackle Elijah Nkansah, free safety T.J. Mutcherson, Jordan Simmons.
Monday, the team signed to futures contract for this offseason nine of the 10 players that ended the season on the practice squad: wide receiver Keenan Reynolds, cornerback Jeremy Boykins, wide receiver Caleb Scott, cornerback Simeon Thomas, safety Marwin Evans, tight end Tyrone Swoopes, linebacker Justin Currie, center Marcus Henry and guard Jordan Roos.
Alex McGough, the team’s seventh-round draft choice last spring, was not signed to a futures contract. He is a free agent.
Carroll and Schneider have not been big spenders on splashy free agents from around the league in their nine years leading the Seahawks. And they have to extend quarterback Russell Wilson’s and Wagner’s contracts at some point sooner than later; both end after the 2019 season.
Carroll said the team will have talks this offseason with the quarterback’s agent to extend Wilson’s deal. The last time he signed an extension, for $87.6 million, it was on the second day of training camp entering the final year of his rookie deal. Wilson is in line for at least $30-32 million per year, based on the market set by this past year’s new deals for Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan.
But the Seahawks have more to spend this offseason than in past ones.
They currently stand to have $63.1 million in space under the league’s salary cap for the coming year,. That’s ninth-most in the NFL, based on projections the league’s cap will rise to $187 million-$191 million per team next season.
Carroll says this season’s end and this team’s new core feels like the 2012 ones. Then, rookies Wilson and Wagner were leaders on the team that lost at Atlanta in the divisional round of the playoffs. The following year, they won the Super Bowl.
“(We have) really high hopes and really big expectations for the future,” Carroll said. “I don’t mind the big expectations, at all. I don’t mind them one bit.
“These guys are worthy of it.’’